Utilitarianism C/B grade summary notes


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Utilitarianism AO1

  • Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism
  • Bentham claimed that it is human nature to find pleasure good – there’s nothing else we are capable of valuing.
  • So, an action is good if it maximises pleasure (principle of utility).
  • Utility means usefulness – how useful an action is in ethics refers to how useful it is in bringing about certain consequences – making Utilitarianism a consequentialist theory.
  • Bentham thought we needed to calculate how much pleasure an action would produce using the hedonic calculus – a list of 7 criteria like intensity and duration (Act Utilitarianism).
  • We should then do the action that will produce the most net pleasure.

  • Mill’s rule Utilitarianism
  • Bentham thought all pleasures were equal, but Mill thought higher pleasures were superior.
  • Higher pleasures (of the mind) have less risk of addiction and last longer. 
  • Mill thought it was too difficult to calculate every single action that we do.
  • Utilitarianism can only work if instead society tries to figure out the rules that will maximise happiness if followed.
  • People then simply need to know those rules and follow them – this will work much better.
  • One of Mill’s favourite rules was the ‘harm principle’ – that people should be free to do what they want so long as they are not harming others.

The issue of calculation 

  • – We can’t predict the future or measure subjective pleasure

Bentham’s response:

  •  We know how similar actions have turned out in the past, so we know the ‘tendency’ actions have to produce certain consequences. So although we can’t predict the future for certain we can know it well enough for utilitarianism to work.

Mill’s response: 

  • However, Mill’s response is better because it doesn’t require measuring pleasure, nor does it require making these complex calculations about similar past actions in each moral situation.
  • For the most part, we should forget about judging every single action by itself – that’s too time-consuming and impractical.
  • It’s better for society to focus on developing a set of social rules which, if followed, will maximise happiness.
  • These rules can be debated and improved over time.

Utilitarianism justifies bad actions and is against human rights – tyranny of majority

  • The idea of human rights is deontological – it claims that people have an intrinsic right to life, etc. Consequentialist ethics, like Utilitarianism, cannot accept human rights as valid, therefore. A consequentialist would always argue that killing someone could be justified if the consequences make it good.
  • This means Utilitarianism could justify things like slavery, if we enslaved 10% of the population for the happiness of the other 90%, it looks like that would be maximising happiness. So, Utilitarianism seems to justify bad actions.

Mill’s rule utilitarianism as a response

  • Mill seems to solve this problem because he stops judging individual actions and instead says we should follow social rules. The harm principle would not allow slavery or any other form of harm done to any minority. So, Mill can overrule these individual cases where happiness is gained from harming individuals. His version would not justify bad actions.

Criticism of Rule Utilitarianism. 

  • Rule utilitarianism comes in strong and weak varieties. 
  • Strong rule utilitarianism says that even if it maximises happiness, we should not break a rule. The problem there is, the theory is no longer about maximising happiness, it’s about following rules, it seems to become a deontological theory and is no longer Utilitarianism.
  • Weak rule utilitarianism says that if it maximises happiness, we should break a rule. The issue here is that it simply collapses back into act Utilitarianism. If you should break a rule every time it maximises pleasure to do so, really you are acting no different to the way Act Utilitarianism recommends.